Many of the monuments that one encounters in the Irish countryside have defensive functions or at least have features that we equate with defence. These can vary from prehistoric hill-forts to the highly defensive motte and bailey and earthwork castles of the Anglo Norman era. However, by far the most common fortified building to be seen in the rural landscape is the iconic tall and slender Gaelic tower house.
Among the most intriguing archaeological features found in the Irish countryside are the numerous tall tower houses dotted across the rural landscape. They are often simply referred to as castles but in fact form a distinctive type of castle classified as a tower house. They take their name from their tall slender tower-like appearance. Constructed by the local strong chieftain/farmer they functioned as houses just as much as castles, though most very definitely bear defensive features. They generally consist of a vertical single-pile building of four or five stories with the main rooms stacked one above the other. In many instances a small loft or garret was included beneath the roof space. This was usually accessed by a wooden ladder for the upper room. Most tower houses have spiral stair cases providing access to the various floors though some have straight mural stairs incorporated into their thick walls. Garderobes or medieval toilets were also built into the external walls. The garderobe chute which carried the waste matter out of the building is generally visible near the base of the wall on the outside. Many of the early tower houses had one or more barrel vaulted ceilings between the main floors. These strong vaults provided protection from fire. Later buildings had wooden floors. The roofs generally consisted of large oak beams and rafters covered by thatch or oak shingles, in some of the later examples slate was used. Fireplaces generally denote a later building often on inspection it will be found that a fireplace has been built into a former window embrasure. Diagonally set chimneys commonly referred to as Jacobean chimneys are a feature of seventeenth-century buildings.
A characteristic of the tower house is its defensive features. Bartizans were usually placed at corners as overhanging parapets supported on corbels from which missiles could be dropped on those below attempting to undermine the corners of the building. Machicolations which functioned in a similar
manner were located above the entrance door. Missiles such as stones and boiling water could be dropped on top of those trying to gain entry. Tower houses had a strong door of heavy oak planks which was often protected by an iron gate or grill known as a ‘yett’. If by chance an assailant gained entry to the building a hole in the floor immediately above the entrance lobby called a ‘murder-hole’ acted as form of secondary defence. Those protecting the castle from within could thrust spears or fire arrows down on top of the enemy through these holes thus giving meaning to the term murder-hole. Even the spiral stairs itself provided security in that its steps were narrow and irregular therefore making it hard for an adversary to negotiate under the heat of battle. Most tower houses have a wall walk that allows access to the upper levels or battlements as they are called. The crenulations built into the battlement walls provided protection to those defending the building. Early tower houses do not have gun loops but instead have narrow slit windows from which arrows could be fired. The first mention of firearms in Irish warfare is in 1487 when Godrey O’Donnell shot one of the O’ Rourkes of Brefine with a handgun but guns did not constitute a real threat to tower houses until much later. An impressive feature commonly associated with the tower house is its bawn wall, with its gate house or barbican and its series of corner towers providing flanking fire. The bawn comprises of the enclosing element that surrounds the tower house and derives from the Irish bó dún, a cow enclosure, used to keep cattle safe from marauders. Not all were built in stone they also consisted of wooden fences and strong hedges of blackthorn or whitethorn set on top of earthen banks.
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